New political realities

Once this war is over on both the Lebanese and Gazan fronts, we can expect a period of flux in the fortunes and direction of the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. What follows is of necessity a speculative assessment as to where that may lead.

In Israel, public and political criticism will be leveled at the Olmert government over its handling of the war, and particularly its hasty decision to respond to the Hizballah attack on July 12 with an all-out offensive and its acquiescence in the IDF’s over-confident plan to rely almost entirely on air power. Its handling of contacts and negotiations regarding a ceasefire and deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon may also come in for heavy criticism, depending on their outcome. If there seems any likelihood that Israeli troops will remain in South Lebanon for an indeterminate time, public anger at the government could grow. While the Knesset will remain on summer vacation until mid-October, opposition politicians from the right and the left could try to convene it for a vote of no-confidence.

A lot of criticism will focus on the army, its degree of preparedness for the war in terms of both intelligence and operations, and the growing dominance of the Israel Air Force in the IDF’s most senior ranks. It will be hard to blame the government for these alleged lacunae, given that it had not served even 100 days when the war began. On the other hand, the near total lack of national security decision-making experience at the highest levels of the Olmert government, including the prime minister himself, will undoubtedly draw criticism, including from within Kadima and its primary coalition partner, Labor. Certainly, in the aftermath of a war fought across two internationally-recognized boundaries to which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally, any attempt by Olmert to proceed with plans for "convergence" or further unilateral disengagement on the West Bank could jeopardize the stability of his government.

One additional factor that could either weaken or energize the Olmert government after the war might be new local or international initiatives concerning Lebanon, Syria and/or Palestine that seek to exploit the war and the surrounding regional crisis to leverage new peace departures. PM Olmert’s response to such initiatives, and the attitude of the Israeli public, could be crucial for the stability of his government in the months to come. Given the likely opposition to another unilateral disengagement in the near future, Olmert would be wise to weigh carefully the possibility of engaging in some sort of peace process if the opportunity arises.

Turning to the Palestinian Authority, speculation centers on the likelihood that the current Hamas government will be replaced after the war in Gaza by a Hamas-Fateh unity cabinet, catalyzed by the Prisoners’ Document the two sides have reportedly agreed on. Depending on its composition and its guidelines, such a government might be better able to interact with the international community, receive aid and possibly even dialogue with Israel at the economic and political levels. Here, too, a lot depends on the way the war in Gaza ends and the possibility of new initiatives emanating from the international community. If, for example, Syria is successfully co-opted into a renewed political process, this might help soften up Hamas’ hard line positions on some issues.

Here it behooves us to recall the Israeli-Palestinian agenda prior to the war. Olmert was about to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). According to both Abu Mazen and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Olmert intended to release a considerable number of Palestinian prisoners–women, minors and the aged–as a goodwill gesture. He then planned to explore with Abu Mazen various possibilities for a peace process. At the time, it appeared that little would come of these meetings, thereby clearing the decks for Olmert’s convergence plan.

Now Olmert may feel obliged to shelve his convergence plan. In a best case scenario, Abu Mazen’s status might be strengthened by the presence of Fateh representatives in the PA government, while developments to Israel’s north might include some sort of political process with Lebanon and/or Syria. This could bespeak a new political reality for Israelis and Palestinians–though how different, and in what direction it might lead, are for the moment matters strictly for speculation. Nor is a post-war worst case scenario beyond the realm of speculation: ongoing border tensions with Hamas and Hizballah, and unstable governments in both Israel and Palestine.